Tom Spurgeon's Web site of comics news, reviews, interviews and commentary

December 20, 2010

CR Holiday Interview #1—Joe Casey

imageI can't think of a better way to kick off 2010's round of holiday interviews than a chat with CR pal the writer Joe Casey. I'm hoping for a focus on vocational issues in this year's series discussions -- jobs being precious right now and jobs in comics being hard to come by in the best years let alone one where various comics industries are in flux. Casey's move over the last couple of years from mainstream scripting mainstay to a combination of producer on animated series with his Man Of Action cohorts and prolific maker of slightly odd and idiosyncratically-tinged comic book projects mostly his own but at times other people's, well, this seemed to me the kind of natural move for a lot of creators that on its better days today's market helps enable. I found a lot of what Casey has to say about orienting himself to the realities of today's industry sobering and intriguing in equal measure. Casey and I had the following conversation over several weeks following Comic-Con International 2010, where we had the talk referenced below that initiated the back and forth. He and I both edited the manuscript for clarity and flow. As always, I'm thankful to Joe for holding forth in honest fashion on an area of comics about which I sometimes understand very little. -- Tom Spurgeon


TOM SPURGEON: Joe, the idea for this specific interview came about when I ran into you at Comic-Con International and the biggest, newest thing on your plate was a deal with Man Of Action to work on Marvel's latest Spider-Man TV show project. It hit me that this is the kind of thing you should be doing right now, that it's a natural progression for a lot of writers to branch out into different kinds of projects at a certain point in their careers. How do you feel about the way your career has progressed over the last 7-10 years?

CASEY: You know, it's only when I do interviews that I'm forced to have any perspective on it. For the most part, I'm too busy working to think about it or how it's progressed. I guess I feel like I'm just trying to keep up some forward momentum, to keep challenging myself. Something like Ben 10 came almost out of the blue. Not necessarily the show, because we busted our ass to make that happen, but the subsequent, global domination of the property and the massive merchandising that sprang out of it. It's something I can't even comprehend, the scope and the size of it. Definitely a once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing. Nevertheless, that's been a game changer for me, for our company and how we move forward with our business. It's tough to even speculate what things would be like for me if that show and its success hadn't happened in the manner it did. But, y'know, that kind of thinking can drive you nuts. In some ways, I feel a little like I'm shedding one skin and being forced to get comfortable in another. With Ben 10, then Generator Rex and now Ultimate Spider-Man, I find myself damn near full-time in the animated television business... a place where I never imagined myself ending up.

Of course, back in the warm embrace of the comic book medium, at this point I'm actually quite satisfied with maybe/possibly/hopefully being counted among a nice tradition of cult writers who tried to push the envelope, each in their own ways, and who had occasional flashes of mass, mainstream exposure. Don McGregor. Steve Gerber. Peter Milligan. Mike Baron. Howard Chaykin. These are writers I admire a lot, some of them are bonafide heroes of mine, so if I can even get close to the kind of contribution they made to the medium, that ain't bad at all. It's a niche where maybe I actually fit in.

Honestly, I have mixed emotions about the whole thing, about where things have gone for us. Mainly because when I broke in, back in the mid-'90s, comic books were considered a dead-end career. Marvel was bankrupt, on multiple levels. DC had no real identity to speak of, other than turning Superman into an electric blue ice skater. There was no real notion that writing comics would lead to anything else in the entertainment business. In fact, there was a sense that being a comic book writer might hinder your chances of branching out into screenwriting or television or any jobs like that. But that was completely fine with me. I was more than happy to be a comic book writer. Hell, I was proud of it and still am. I never saw it as a "stepping stone" to anything. I'm too respectful and enamored of the art form to think of it like that. It was all about the love of the game. And it still is, really. But the industry's just not like that anymore, it's not the (perceived) dead-end career choice it used to be. Not at all. But that "natural progression" you're referring to has only happened inside the last decade.

SPURGEON: What do you mean when you say the industry's not like that anymore. You mean that there are opportunities now that there weren't when you started? Do you ultimately think it's good or bad for comics, all this heat and attention on an industry and an art form that was until so very recently an absolute afterthought in terms of wider entertainment?

CASEY: What I'm saying is, a new kid entering the business can look at someone like Geoff Johns and instead of saying, "I want to be like Geoff and write Flash one day," they can say, "I want to be like Geoff and write comics, write for the Smallville TV show and become the Chief Creative Officer for DC Entertainment!" Being a comic book creator is a stepping stone to other things now... like being a producer on the Spider-Man show. You could argue that the love of the game is still there to some degree, but I would think that, for most people, the game itself isn't simply the personal fulfillment of writing the adventures of your favorite childhood heroes or trying to advance the art form in some way or, God forbid, creating your own comics. I mean, how many "creator-owned" comics look more and more like straight-up movie pitches these days? But I don't think comics are in any danger... they've survived far too long and far too much bullshit to let the current climate of nonsense stamp them out. And, y'know, there are still those select creators out there -- in the mainstream, even -- claiming to be fully committed to the medium, and God bless 'em, one and all.


SPURGEON: Another thing we talked about on the CCI floor is that when a writer gets to a certain point in their career some of the traditional carrots that mainstream comics companies will dangle take on a different tone -- you see them more as an inducement than as an actual, serious job offer. Is that an accurate description? Do you think sometimes that people at comics companies, maybe employers in general, over-estimate what they have to offer a working writer?

CASEY: Well, I think it's up to the individual writer to personally assess the value of whatever work is being offered up. For instance, normally a three-issue Marvel mini-series that's meant to tie in to their "Dark Reign" event would have little or no appeal for me. However, when I get a certain level of autonomy to come up with a new villain and work with Nathan Fox (one of my faves) and, in many ways, take the piss out of the event I'm supposed to be a tangential part of, that's worth something. Turned out to be a lot of fun and one of the best things I ever did at Marvel. But, y'know, a fill-in issue of Wolverine or Captain America? I'm probably not the guy you wanna ask right now. I mean, not for nothing, but I'm a supervising producer/story editor/head writer on the new Spider-Man animated series premiering in 2012 on Disney XD (as the press releases say)...! I dunno, seems like it's a fairly big deal, there's a lot riding on it for Marvel moving forward and we're responsible for it. If any editor at either Marvel or DC can't acknowledge that when they're talking to me in a business capacity, they shouldn't talk to me at all. And I'm not looking for an ego stroke, simply an acknowledgment. Myself and the guys in my company... we've worked like motherfuckers to get where we are. We've built ourselves up to the point where, sentimental reasons aside and strictly from a career point of view, it's not as big a deal to work on a book for Marvel and/or DC as it used to be. Are there still WFH gigs that would be fun to write? Hell, yes. Is either getting or not getting those gigs going to affect my overall career at this point? I wouldn't think so. They're not the carrots they used to be.

So, really, if you look at how the comics industry has evolved just over the past few years, there are other carrots now. When you consider the more corporate-level positions that Jeph Loeb or Geoff Johns now hold at their respective companies, it's obvious there are all-new, all-different carrots for the folks who do what we do. Myself and my business partners were just lucky that we made a significant mark with a property that we created. We forged our own path... one that was more in line with our personal, creative philosophies. I don't think we were ever interested in being 100% dependent on servicing corporate-owned characters that have been around decades longer than we have. And I say that being perfectly happy to work with the guys at Marvel and Disney XD, like we're doing right now. The Spider-Man TV gig is a lot of fun and we're working extremely hard on it, but it's things like Ben 10 and Generator Rex and our creator-owned comics -- and, of course, whatever comes next -- that's going to be our true legacy (for better or for worse... heh...).

And for me, personally, conceiving and creating my own books from the ground up at Image Comics... it turns out that was the ultimate goal all along. Having that kind of freedom -- not to mention the level of trust we get at Image -- is a true achievement in this industry. Anyone who's lucky enough to have it shouldn't take it for granted. Now, having said that, it's all about context. Writing something for the Big Two is great once in awhile, a ride definitely worth taking, but why would I waste another moment of my life trying to execute an editor's lame-ass idea for -- to cite a recent, personal example that still kinda stings -- a Superman/Batman story? If it had been my idea, fine... but his?! I honestly don't know what I was thinking there... and I got my just desserts by getting fucked around on a story I had no real interest in writing to begin with. Live and learn, I guess.


SPURGEON: To follow up on that, just the idea that certain editors and other gatekeepers get to offer work to the writers: is that something that fuels the dysfunctional relationship within comics we've talked about in the past, the lack of respect that you've talked about in the past being at the heart of a lot of day-to-day interaction that creators have with editors and publishers?

CASEY: I think maybe the real situation there is that WFH editors are forced to split focus between dealing with creators that are either new to the biz or they're new to the Big Two (and, let's face it, might be relatively green and need some hand-holding) and creators that have been around the block a few times, have their shit together, don't need their hand held, etc. I guess they get confused sometimes. I can understand it, these guys have a fuckton of work on their desks. But, on the other hand, I'm a professional and I want to be treated as such. I'm not going to allow myself to be mistaken for a newbie, just because someone hasn't taken the time or made the minimal amount of effort to do their homework on me. Everyone on both sides should just be professional and the rest will take care of itself.

For my part, I take my comic book deadlines as seriously as I do my television deadlines. And, believe me, I don't have to. It seems like you can get away with a level of unprofessional behavior in comics that you'd never try to get away with in television. Publishers will allow a book to ship late. They're complicit in that type of behavior. We've all seen it happen. At the networks... well, that's not even part of their thinking. On air dates are pretty much set in stone. So anyway, for anyone I'm working with -- even the goofiest editors out there -- I respect them enough to be a professional, to do exactly what I've agreed to do for them, whatever it may be. It doesn't always go both ways. But, y'know, it is what it is, I guess.

SPURGEON: You really think they're just confused as to who has what resume? Because that would mean sometimes newbies would get treated like a longtime pro, and from what I've seen it's never that. Also, why do you think publishers are complicit in certain kinds of behavior? What do they gain by fostering an atmosphere of indulgence?

CASEY: No, you're right... it only goes one way. I'd imagine there are probably more newbies actively working in the biz than longtime pros at the moment, so that treatment has to swing that way more often than not. And therein lies part of the problem, right? It's frustrating as hell for the guys with experience and bonafide track records. I do think there are probably a few editors at the Big Two who don't know the extent of my resume, and I simply can't be the only pro that's true of.

And, listen, the reason publishers are often complicit in the kind of behavior I'm talking about -- soft deadlines which lead to late shipping books -- is because there are times when quality is worth waiting for. I'm not damning them for being complicit, but I do know that lateness is tolerated -- okay, maybe even indulged (to use your word) -- when publishers feel they're getting something in return, like big sales from popular creators. But you can never count on them giving you that leeway. They'll always use blown deadlines against you, when it's convenient. But you're talking to someone who doesn't really have deadline problems... I like the fast fiction aspect of the monthly (or even the weekly) grind. I impose it on myself with my own comics. That kind of relentless pace can pull something out of my work that I enjoy... some kind of energy that translates to the page, I think. Any indulgence should be in the ideas, y'know...?


SPURGEON: To back things up a bit, can you talk about your 2010 in terms of the vocational aspects of your writing? In a typical month, how much time do you spend on different projects. Can you ballpark that for me, at least, or talk as explicitly as possible as to how you approach what you work on and when? Do you set priorities and then go out and find work that scratches different itches, or do you take what comes and make room for it? This many years in, are you more productive than you used to be? Less?

CASEY: Oh, jeezus, I would think that I'm a lot more productive now. Mainly because I'm forced to be, simply by the nature of the work we're doing. I don't know if I can quantify it, because it's just everything, all the time. The television work has picked up to the point where it's become a lot of my day-to-day ditch digging. The Spider-Man show has kicked into high gear, and we're still involved in every Rex episode from premise to rough cut, all the way up the production chain. Plus, we're consultants on the Bakugan animated show, giving notes on season arcs, episode outlines and scripts. Then there are the endless meetings as we get deeper into new projects. Being a partner in Man Of Action is a full-time job.

At the same time, I've got seven (!) major creator-owned comic book projects in various stages of production. But that stuff is like... well, it's the most fun you can have. To come up with an idea and to be able to craft it, develop it, and see it through to eventual publication, basically on your own timetable, it's a real joy for me. It's more of a passion than bona fide "work". The collaborations with the artists I've been working with... Tom Scioli, Andy Suriano, Chris Burnham, Mike Huddleston, David Messina, Wilfredo Torres, Christian Ward, Alexis Ziritt... most of them have been so much more organic than a typical WFH gig. In fact, when I'd finally cleared the decks of any WFH comic gigs, I ended up tapping into a real freedom of creative thought that I didn't expect to happen. But I'm enjoying the hell out of it. I'm back to making comics out of pure love and inspiration. So, I guess I am working my ass off... but I'm digging every minute of it.

imageSPURGEON: To follow up with maybe a more focused version of the previous question. Is there a tendency to favor one kind of gig over another? You've had a pretty well-rounded year, Joe, just in comics, with Gǿdland still hanging in there, and Avengers: The Origin and Officer Downe. And then with your other material... is it hard to not want to go all in one one project or another. Are there advantages to spreading yourself out in the manner that you do?

CASEY: Well, come on... my creator-owned projects are "all in," whether I'm conscious of it or not. They have to be, otherwise what's the point in even doing them? But I get what you're saying. When I did the film, that was a situation where I had to completely immerse myself in the process. And it was an extremely rewarding experience. I really loved doing it. The fact that the movie is now out on DVD, that someone can add it to their Netflix queue, is almost beside the point. It was the process that I loved. The advantage of having so many irons in the fire -- even as it might seem overwhelming sometimes -- is that life is never boring. And that's all you can really ask for, isn't it? Choosing to work on one thing over another is more instinctual than anything else. To be at a point in my career where no one gig is going to make or break me... there ends up being a lot of freedom there.

SPURGEON: So with this greater freedom to work on creator-owned projects and this significant amount of work you're doing... have those conditions changed the work itself at all, do you think? How are you a different writer than you were seven years ago?

CASEY: I think I'm a lot looser in my writing than I used to be. A lot more improvisational, writing more on instinct, letting it fly a lot more freely than I have in the past. But I wouldn't say that applies only to my creator-owned work. Some of the WFH stuff I've done in the past two years -- the Zodiac book, the Super Young Team book -- would definitely fall into the "looser" category. I do think the conditions of having to do all this work in animation has made the process of creating comic books both more precious and more fun. I mean, I always knew it was a special thing, but when you finally hop off the WFH treadmill for a while and you're really doing comics as a pure creative artist, it does make a difference in your attitude. The highs are higher and, consequently, the lows can be that much lower. But, y'know, that's what being a creative person is all about... leaving yourself open to have your heart broken every so often. And having no fear of that. Embracing it, in fact. I guess I am in a specific phase where a lot of creator-owned work is happening right now, and I'm pretty thankful for that. At some point, it might swing the other way again, but right now I'm having a moment and I'm gonna' ride this fucker all the way up the mountain.

SPURGEON: Since this will run the same year that WildStorm is shutting down, I was wondering if you could talk a bit about the culture of the company, and what it was about writing books for them that you think resulted in the work you did for them -- which I think is among your very best. They had a reputation for a certain amount of creative freedom, but also maybe not always staying on top of their end of things, production and administrative issues. What do you remember about it now? What does comics lose by not having that specific company around any more?

CASEY: Ah, Tom... it was the best of times, it was the worst of times. I learned a lot of valuable lessons about doing WFH comics while I was there. I had some great creative highs and I got burned a few times. I definitely look back with a sizable degree of pride for the work that I did there, and I'm grateful that there seems to be a few readers who still remember those books, even though -- in the case of Automatic Kafka and The Intimates -- they never put collected editions into print... collections that I'm pretty sure would at least make their money back. And this is after seeing foreign hardcover collections of Kafka that are beautifully done. Yet they'd never hesitate to collect the weirdest, low-selling stuff, books that sold much less and had much less buzz than anything I ever wrote for them. Now, I'm not sure where their rep for lacking in production or admin issues came from, because I always felt like, on average, they had fairly high production values when I was there. As far as the culture of the company overall... I think I would classify it as "confused." It certainly wasn't a corporate ethos to try and do cutting edge superhero comics... that came from individual creators and a few capable, simpatico editors taking advantage of a company that had no real ethos.

On a personal level, I'll admit it would get on my nerves when they acted like DC's bitch. They rolled over numerous times when DC wanted them to, not only when it came to censoring Mark Millar's Authority or pulping books written by Alan Moore, but also when it came to poaching artists from my books to work on -- wait for it -- Superman or Batman. And it happened all the time. From what I understand, it was DC editorial going to Wildstorm editorial and then Wildstorm editorial going to the artists and suggesting that they take the DC gigs. I would've had more respect if DC editorial went directly to the artists. But Wildstorm editorial never seemed to put up a fight... in fact, they seemed happy to facilitate the theft. So, obviously, there were times when they clearly did not value the quality and the uniqueness of their own books. Then again, neither did some of the artists who allowed themselves to be poached, so what're you gonna do...?

So all in all, a well-rounded work experience, I guess. Sometimes it was great, sometimes it sucked. And to answer your question, at this point, comics really loses nothing from them closing up shop. Not being able to read the continuing adventures of Grifter or Deathblow or Stormwatch is no great loss to humanity. Sorry, but it was never about the characters. It was about the creators' passion for the work we were doing. And the influence has been felt, the effects can be seen at other companies, on other creators, on other books.

imageAnd, just because I probably won't talk much about this again publicly, I might as well point out something I said to Fraction in our old "Basement Tapes" column at CBR, when discussing the end of The Intimates, which was my last work for Wildstorm (probably because of what I said in the column). I know it pissed Jim Lee off, and I'm sure he's still pissed off. I know it pissed Scott Dunbier off. Anyway, this is what I said back in fucking October of 2005...
"Because one thing publishers have to understand, especially a little-fish-in-a-big-pond like Wildstorm, is that quality counts. It'll never be about big sales for them. That time is over. The only thing they have control over... is quality of product. Putting out good material. Keeping artists on their books and not letting them get stolen or lured away by the chance to draw fucking Batman. For chrissakes, Batman will always be there and it will always need more bodies to throw on that monthly fire... The few significant creative successes they've had have been when the creatives involved stuck it out for an entire run. Warren and Hitch on the first twelve Authoritys. Warren and Cassaday on Planetary. Sean Phillips and I on WildCATS Vol. 2. Sean and Ed Brubaker on Sleeper. Ash and I on Kafka. Now it's happening with BKV and Tony Harris on Ex Machina. These are the series readers will remember over time, not the editorial events that are supposed to "fix" things... because whenever WS has treated their books like assembly line products ("Oh, we'll just stick Artist X in on a couple of fill-ins... no one'll care.") it's always ended up a clusterfuck, both creatively and saleswise. Always."
Oh well. I suppose the fact that they got so pissed off at me meant that they heard me. And yet, they didn't listen, did they?

Now, forget about the actual comics for a minute and forget about my own personal experience. What's semi-interesting to me is the larger corporate landscape. The loss of Wildstorm and what it meant within the overall DC brand could -- and probably should -- be seen as a cautionary tale. When Wildstorm was making some cutting edge comics, they were vital. They were important. They were alive. They helped make DC a lot cooler than they would be without them. But, as they say... when you snooze, you lose. When Wildstorm stopped being cutting edge, they were instantly a millstone around DC's neck. They brought nothing to the table, creatively. The fact that their videogame tie-in comic was reportedly DC's biggest seller didn't even register, because what does that have to do with Wildstorm as a brand? Now go even wider and consider Warners in general. They just had that shake-up at the highest levels of management. A big-time studio head is basically pushed out, and it's been suggested that it was possibly in part because he couldn't get his shit together when it came to exploiting DC properties in the wider mediaspace, where billions of dollars in profits are at stake. When you don't know what to do with the assets you've got, when it comes across like you're too paralyzed to take action (for whatever reason), it's time to step aside and let the adults take the wheel. Or, in the case of Wildstorm, it's time to be taken back behind the barn and be put out of your misery.

Is my point of view at all reasonable? Maybe not. Do I care? Absolutely not. I'm a crazy, unpredictable artistic type, remember? Wildstorm was the place where I put my blood, sweat and tears into WFH projects... so, clearly, I was the fuckin' asshole.

imageSPURGEON: Another thing that I think marks 2010 is the increased profile enjoyed by the Hero Initiative, a charity that looks after the desperate financial needs of mostly older cartoonists and comic book people. This is kind of a delicate question, but I always wonder what it's like as a working pro to see these hard-luck cases and if doing so informs choices that you make. I think of you as part of that group of guys that has it together for the most part; do you pay more attention to that aspect of career because of some of the tough examples from the past? Do you think about those things in personal terms at all?

CASEY: To be honest, it's not in my nature to depend on anyone else to take care of me or my family, no matter what my circumstances. Maybe it's a pride thing, I dunno. But it keeps me out of trouble, keeps me thinking straight. Or maybe it has to do with the fact that my ambitions to create comics as a career included going in with my eyes wide open, knowing full well that this is not an industry with a stellar track record of taking care of its own. The hard luck cases that are happening right now are heartbreaking, to be sure. Steve Perry's story chilled me to the bone. It does make me realize how lucky I am that I found additional revenue streams and that my business sense, such as it is, has served me fairly well. But even that reflects my attitude towards work in general, especially the freelancer life: Don't put all your eggs in one basket. I never signed an exclusive with any publisher, because I figured I could do more work -- make more money -- in more places as a free agent. And even though Ben 10 hit big, we're still out there selling more shows, getting more projects happening in a number of areas. We're certainly not resting on anything. That said, something like the Hero Initiative was long overdue, and those folks do tremendous work for people who absolutely deserve it.

SPURGEON: One thing I've always liked about your work is your frequent thematic noodling on the issue of vocation, and role and job -- why are we doing what we do with the majority of our time, whether that involves putting on a costume or making some kind of choice for the future or having to really sit down and think through what we've done in the past. Do you have a different perspective on those issues now that you're a little bit older, do you think? Do you look at the grappling with those kinds of questions in a different light now that you're in a different place in your life?

CASEY: Obviously, I'm in a different place in my life, with different priorities that are way outside of myself. Very different priorities. I used to come first, now I come third or fourth (if I'm lucky). But, y'know, I still I find myself going back and forth on what my work life actually means to me. How much are you your job, and how much are you not your job? When your job is a creative endeavor, it can get even more confusing. I look back at some of the stuff I've written -- even things that you might not consider "personal" work -- and I'm surprised how much of myself is in them. Who knew that superhero comics could serve as personal diary entries?

In the past year or two, I realized one of the reasons I do this is because, to put it bluntly, I'm addicted to the buzz of creating. It's such a rush to have an idea that actually gets you off, that you feel has some real merit (even if only to yourself). Now, I don't know how much that feeling "defines" me, but I've come to appreciate how important it is. It's what keeps me in the game, I think. I'm as competitive as the next guy, but not about sales. I just want to have better ideas, have better-looking comics, throw down the (meaningless) gauntlet to other creators out there and say, "Top this, bitches!" It's all part of the fun for me.

I guess one way I look at the concept of "work" these days... is as a vehicle for growth. I'm not so interested in "busy work" anymore as I am in doing work where I can discover something about myself, maybe find some sort of enlightenment or illumination. And I'm not looking for massive, personal revelations that'll completely change my life (although those do happen every so often)... true growth tends to happen in tiny increments. The trick is to be self-aware enough to know when it does happen, so you can take advantage of it and maybe channel it back into your work.

I'll admit... I feel sorta self-conscious talking about this stuff when you think about my stock-in-trade, which is essentially genre work of one kind or another. I'm not writing War & Peace or the U.S. Constitution. I'm writing comic books in the so-called mainstream where, more often than not, shit blows up and characters tend to knock the holy hell out of each other. Maybe that doesn't lend itself to immediate, artistic self-reflection... but, hey, I gotta be me.


SPURGEON: When we first talked years ago now, you were a writer that I'd characterize as working ahead of your generation -- your opportunities and gigs were higher profile than a lot of the guys in your approximate age group. Now that more and more people in your general age range are getting those same opportunities, do you feel that you're part of a generational shift in comic creators? Are there creators that when you look at what they do and how they do it you recognize more of yourself in what they do as opposed to maybe some of your older colleagues earlier on in your career. Are there creators with whom you feel a sense of shared outlook and camaraderie? And if not, can you talk about some of the things you think are different about, or maybe simply unique to, your creative experience and way of looking at things?

CASEY: It's funny... when I got the Deathlok gig, it was my first time launching a continuing, monthly series at Marvel. I remember thinking, "Holy shit, it's a motherfucking Marvel Comic with a #1 on the cover and I'm writing it...!" I was more used to the notion of taking over a book well into its run. Y'know, Frank Miller did Batman: Year One in issues #404-407 of the Batman monthly. Alan Moore took over Swamp Thing with issue #20. So launching a new series was kind of a big deal, something I never thought would happen in my career. Now, that's more likely to happen for a new writer, where some of their first gigs are a #1 issue of a Marvel Comic. And when I landed the Uncanny X-Men gig after being in the biz -- as a full-time pro -- for only about four years, I thought I was on a fast track. Maybe too fast, considering how that gig turned out. But it was the number one book in the Direct Market and I went after it and I'm the one who got it. Nowadays, that kind of WFH career trajectory would be considered a slow burn. I'd written maybe 100 published comics by the time I was offered that book.

These days, a writer can have a tenth of that experience and be offered a big flagship title. And more power to 'em, I say. It probably speaks more to a shorter attention span in pop culture than anything else. Unfortunately, if you want to look at it another way, it may also speak to the lessening power of these once mighty franchises in the comic book landscape. Writing Superman or the X-Men used to be a prestige gig that would be tough to get. Not so much now, it seems. But that's cool. Maybe that's how it should be. Then again, the lower tier characters sell so poorly, it's difficult for new writers to cut their teeth on books that aren't just going to get canceled out from under them after five issues. You've said it yourself... the "mid-list" is disappearing. Actually, when I stop and think about it... Superman and the X-books don't sell all that well these days, either. They're becoming mid-list themselves. Seems like a bizarre Catch-22 to me...

I'll tell you what else... I'm actually seeing things in WFH comics now that I was doing seven or eight years ago. Not just techniques, but actual ideas. I love me some Fraction, but seeing that Tony Stark wants to "change the world" by manufacturing a car that isn't dependent on gasoline and runs on a possibly limitless energy source that only he can provide... where have I seen that before? Grant Morrison, of all people, had the confidence and the grace to name check me in a Wired magazine interview when it comes to whatever minor contribution I've made to the "corporate" angle in modern comics, but he seems to be the only one. And there are other little things I see here and there that I recognize as having done myself, ten years ago. Things that are so specific, I know where they came from, I know it's not just coincidence. Now before certain people go crazy because I dared say that... no one should read this as me being at all bitter, because I actually think it's fine. Let 'em all pick at the bones of the carcasses I chased down and slaughtered in the field... I'm on to the next kill. I certainly did it with the creators that I dug when I was a newbie. It's just weird to be on the other side of it. Any creators out there who don't think we all share the same ideaspace are deluding themselves.

But, y'know, it all adds up to one thing for me, personally... mainstream comics have become so boring that I can barely stand it. There are a few exceptions. Morrison's work still gives me a helluva charge, Allan Heinberg's a favorite (when he's able to carve out the time to write comics), but it's mostly lot of insanely talented creators at Marvel and DC and elsewhere just boring the shit out of me as a reader and as a fan of comics. I hope that doesn't come across as a slam on anyone's work, that's just my honest reaction to a lot of what's out there right now. Most of it, I've seen it all before. Some of it, I've done myself...! But more than anything, that's what gets me off my ass to bust out a plethora of creator-owned material... to try and shake things up a little. Maybe I've done it before, to varying degrees -- I guess that's a matter of opinion -- but I'm more than a little curious whether or not it's possible to do it again with these new books. On a pure showmanship level, I'm calling out all of the comic book-creatin' motherfuckers stuck out there in the mainstream wilderness... saying, "Let's put some swing back into this thing!" Let's give all the bloggers and the podcasters stuff they can really sink their teeth into. There are amazing online writers out there that are dying for something good to write about in the mainstream arena, not to mention the podcasters that want to talk about comics in a more in-depth way, but seem to have less and less to talk about.

And all the things that meant so much to me as a creator, say, back when I was doing books at Wildstorm: alternative character archetypes, next generation design aesthetics, thinking in broader concepts, improvisational writing, cult callbacks, scratch mix dialogue... they still mean something to me. Only now I feel like I'm in competition with myself. I can look at a fucking ancient series like Automatic Kafka and challenge myself to try and push things into new areas. New areas for me, anyway.

Wow. Talk about an answer full of weird tangents. I wonder how you get all this shit outta me, Tom...

SPURGEON: I stay really quiet, Joe. Now, why do you think those mainstream comics are boring? Is it that they've run out of ideas? Is it that being boring suits the corporate goals right now? Is it lack of talent overall? And is it the quality of the ideas that you find bracing about Heinberg and Morrison? If not that, why do they stand out to you?

CASEY: Okay, c'mon... those two certainly don't need me doing their PR for them. I dig Grant's work for the same reasons everyone else does: not only are his ideas great, but more importantly, it's the execution of those ideas that's completely unique and always energetic as hell. That is fucking rare in the mainstream these days. Not only that, who else would've taken on a big DC Corporate Crossover and turned it into a personal artistic statement, to the point where DC Editorial was so freaked out by it, they backed off their support and appreciation of that project -- quite publicly, if anyone cares to remember -- quicker than you can actually say the words, "Final Crisis"? As for Allan, he once happily confirmed my suspicions about his approach to writing superhero comics... that he tries to distill exactly what we all loved about them when we were kids onto each page. I love that it's so deliberate on his part. You can just see it in his work. Every page, there's cool stuff happening, wall-to-wall capes and costumes, dramatic moments, you'll never see him writing endless scenes of characters out of costume, having coffee and indulging in endless conversation like they're on some boring primetime TV drama. He provides that whacked out, four-color hit on every page. There's no filler, and if you like what superhero comics do best, he provides it. Those two, each in their own way, have a boldness in their work that still keeps me engaged as a reader and often inspired as a writer.

Why do I think mainstream comics are so boring? That's an excellent question, Tom. Maybe they aren't and I'm just not seeing their particular virtues. As far as my personal opinion goes, that's all it really is... I'm just talking from the perspective of a reader who doesn't feel like he has enough good stuff to read. There's definitely stuff out there I've loved over the past year... like Rugg and Maruca's Afrodisiac. Grant turned me onto Tales Designed to Thrizzle, which is a good laugh. Clowes' Wilson was pretty satisfying. Mignola's collection of The Amazing Screw-On Head and Other Curious Objects reminded me how wacky and weird that original one-shot really was and how much it influenced me. His work in that book is, to me, so improvisational that you can actually feel the creative energy vibrating off the pages. The Wednesday Comics hardcover had some really cool strips in it. Charles Burns' X'ed Out was great and I'm really looking forward to reading Paul Pope's Battling Boy. But, y'know, read that list back and compare it to the majority of monthly comics output from Marvel and DC. Need I say more?

What's interesting to me is how much it feels like the mid-90's. Remember how fucking mind-numbingly vapid Marvel and DC books were back then? It was just a sea of relentless blandness. What was there to read, as far as monthly superhero comics were concerned? James Robinson's Starman, the Wagner/Seagle/Davis Sandman Mystery Theatre, Kurt Busiek's Astro City and Mark Waid on Flash and his first run on Captain America. Some of Alan Moore's Image Comics work. Hitman was great. But, for my money, that was about it. That's not much. Next thing you know, Grant single-handedly revitalized DC via his JLA book, Wildstorm got bought and got interesting, and finally Quesada and Jemas took over Marvel and turned the entire company -- and by extension, the industry -- on its head by making radical creative moves. I know this first-hand, because I was right there in the middle of it. All of it. Of course, there was less to lose back then, wasn't there?

My feeling about mainstream, monthly superhero books is that they should contain more invention, be more daring, take more chances... because they can. They're so transitory, they're so "here this week, gone later this week", why not go balls out on every single every issue? Especially with DC reducing their page counts. That makes it even more of an imperative that every page matters, motherfuckers! That old chestnut, "writing for the trade" is so over but not everybody has realized it. The way I've always seen it, comics are such a direct form of communication -- even superhero comics -- why waste them saying absolutely nothing? And I'm not talking about saying something profound... I'm saying, "Entertain my ass! Show me something I've never seen before!"

I may be stepping into a minefield of supreme pretention here, but fuck it. It's probably not fashionable to even think this much about genre fiction, let alone superhero comics. But the best superhero comics that have ever been created are both completely timeless and completely of their time. Their power lies simultaneously in both their simplicity and their complexity. When you break them down to some sort of essence, they're supposed to present pure, human emotion inflated and expanded to Wagnerian proportions. That's what they do best. Hey, I'm well aware that my work falls short of my own high standards every time... but I feel like I'm always in there swinging for the fences, like I'm trying to put my own work up against the acknowledged classics or the favorites that I grew up on and seeing how -- or even if -- it compares.


SPURGEON: This is the 20th anniversary of the publication of The Creator's Bill Of Rights. Does that particular expression of the wider issue of creator's right have any meaning to you. How did you feel when Alan Moore made another round of complaints about his treatment by DC? Do you feel like that stuff is even relevant to where you are and what you do, or is all that stuff 100 years ago?

CASEY: I've said it before and I'll say it again, the existence of Image Comics and the kind of deal they provide has been my personal comic book salvation. I see now that all the years I spent slogging away at WFH jobs were a journey that led me to this place. I get to create my own comics and, along with my collaborators, I get to own them completely. Not partially... completely. Why would I create original comics anywhere else? I've worked with almost every other publisher that's out there, but none of their business models can hold a candle to Image Comics when it comes to original work. Creators of my generation... we really owe a huge debt to the Image founders for what they built. It's not all that fashionable to cite those guys, but when have I ever been fashionable? So, obviously, creators' rights are extremely important to me, because I live in that world. I'm in it with both feet. So, to answer your question, I'm clearly benefiting from the hard work of the generations that came before me, the shit they put up with, whatever struggles they went through to change things, to make things better for the rest of us.

Now, regarding Alan Moore's -- now ancient -- interview at Bleeding Cool... from a purely voyeuristic point of view, I got as much of a kick out of it as everyone else seemed to. I think you were right on when you predicted the majority of people's response to it. But, jeezus, the old man's entitled to be as weird as he wants, isn't he? I guess, at the end of the day, as far as Alan Moore is concerned, he's been such an inspiration and given me such pleasure as a reader over the years... if he's happy, I'm happy for him. I mean, I have specific memories of reading specific comics that he wrote... I remember exactly where I was when I read Saga of the Swamp Thing #53 (the Batman/Gotham City issue drawn by John Totleben), I remember where I was when I read Miracleman #2, I remember reading The Killing Joke for the first time, where I was and how it felt. Those are indelible, cherished memories for me. When I look back on those comics now, it's like pressing a button on a time machine. I get that same warm feeling. What a gift that is. So, y'know, more power to him.

SPURGEON: If you met someone that was at the same place you found yourself two or three years into your career, what advice would you give them in order that they best succeed? Is it the same advice you wish you were given, or are things different now?

CASEY: I'm getting a bit of déjà vu from this question, Tom. I think you've asked me this before. [Spurgeon laughs] And maybe I've answered this in the same way before. But anyway... at this point, I can think of nothing worse than going back and telling the twentysomething me anything. I'd probably just fuck things up for him. Not to be too New Age-y here, but the mistakes I made over the years, I needed to make. But, even more importantly, the writing I did, the writing I've done throughout my career, I look at it as an ongoing process. The early, rough work that I did has an energy and enthusiasm that I've probably been trying to get back ever since, and I feel like lately I've been coming close. Maybe. I guess I had a middle period, where I wrote big, mainstream franchises... but that work helped me find and refine my voice. Actually, I'd like to think that I'm still in that middle period, since I've still got a lot to learn. I've got a voice but I'm still discovering how best to use it. When it comes to writing comic books, I've set aside a lot of the "career aspirations" I might've had when I was younger... because I feel like I exceeded those dreams many years ago. But, oddly enough, as ambitious as I thought I was, they were still fairly small dreams. Life has turned out to be so much bigger than what I ever imagined it could be. And maybe I'm better equipped to deal with it.

Probably not, though.


* photo provided by Mr. Casey
* Nathan Fox, making it worthwhile for Casey
* image from that Super Young Team series from several months ago
* Gǿdland 4-Ever
* from this year's Officer Downe
* page from Automatic Kafka
* cover from Intimates
* Hero Initiative logo
* that Deathlok gig
* Andy Suriano, one of many quality artists with whom Casey works
* cover to Avengers: The Origin #3 (below)



posted 12:00 am PST | Permalink

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